Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

The Leaders – A Party animal or a lonely wallflower?

As the Dail recommences all eyes remain on the party leaders. The traditional winter bloodletting season could make for a bumpy ride, but how are each of our leaders fixed? Here, I take a quick look at their standing.

Enda Kenny – The Taoiseach would seem to be comfortable enough at first glance. To be fair to Enda he has settled into the job and for most people the accusation that he would embarrass himself is a distant memory. He may not be inspirational but he at least appears like a decent and able enough chap. When he is making one of those big speeches with lots of rhetoric, people actually quite like him. It’s not easy to be Taoiseach but Kenny has managed the battlefield quite well. His main problem remains that despite trying to reinvent his image, he always seems no more than one wrong word away from destroying it all. There are two major problems looming that Kenny has to deal with. The first is the Seanad referendum. He has personally invested a huge amount of political capital in this. It was seen as a ‘can’t lose’ referendum, but while still quietly confident there are a few nervous glances towards the polls on the government benches. If the referendum is passed, it gives Kenny a confidence boost and also the chance to spread out some more talk of reforms and change over the coming years. He will see it as a legacy impact for his term. However, should the referendum be lost then make no mistake it will cause rumblings among many who will see it as a personal failure of the Taoiseach. He needs a Yes vote badly. The second problem facing him is the Labour question. So far Enda has managed to tie Eamon Gilmore up in knots and keep him boxed in at every opportunity. Deep down, he knows that Gilmore may come knocking and need help to save his leadership or else a new Labour Leader might start flexing muscles. You don’t walk away from the job of Taoiseach and Enda knows that if Labour got it into their head that they could walk away, then he would be forced to make serious compromises to keep them on board. If this occurred, it will lead to the traditional grumbling in the larger party of any coalition that the tail is wagging the dog and that the Taoiseach has started saving his job ahead of his party. If that talk starts, it only ends one way. However, the job of Taoiseach is all about such decisions and challenges, Enda knows that well. He has started to shift within the party to secure his base. Figures like Phil Hogan and James Reilly no longer hold the influence over the Taoiseach that they once had and Enda may yet play all sides, including the long term game with the Reform Alliance, just to keep everyone sweet enough.

Eamon Gilmore – The Tánaiste continues to hang in there. He knows that he needs something to claim from the budget in order to give him a fighting chance. It’s likely he will get it but it won’t be major. Most accept that rather than €3.1 bn needing to be made up in the budget, the figure will be about €2.8 bn. This could allow Labour claim some victory. The real problem is that Eamon cannot really recover his personal strength. He remains leader because no one else really wants to take the job right now. That can change. Labour could leave him in situ until after the local elections, but this may ruin any chance of even a 2 or 3% recovery to save a few seats. It also means that Labour would need to look at Gilmores leadership next May/June. This timing is poor with another budget looming the following October. Another scenario is that potential rivals go with Eamon on the upcoming budget but do so while still grumbling. The budget gets passed and before Christmas, potential rivals blame its worst parts on Eamon’s failures and remove him. Allowing them some hope of even a tiny bounce before the locals and still saying that the time is too short to blame the new leader for a bad result. It also allows sufficient time for the new leader to talk tough and even look to renegotiate parts of the programme for government in advance of the budget next year. No matter what way one looks at it, Eamon Gilmore is no longer a leader in the real sense. He is on borrowed time, a bit like Haughey in November ’91 to Feb ’92: Everyone knew he was only there by the grace of others and it was only a matter of when.

Micheál Martin – The FF leader continues to wrestle his party and grapple to turn things around. He has had some success and a mild but soft recovery in the polls has calmed some early nerves. Serious questions still present themselves. At times Martin seems to lack the decisive will to make things happen. He avoids risks, doesn’t like doing things quickly and seems to follow the same backroom as his predecessors. He hasn’t shown any drastic change. At other times he goes to the opposite extreme, stifling debate, seeking to impose outcomes and trying to dominate proceedings. The abortion issue was the latest in that kind of cycle. There was only ever one outcome for FF in that debate and it was worrying that the Leader or those around him could not see that. This has led some to say that Martin is weak or in a weak position. Martin is not weak but he doesn’t always pick his fights well and a lack of foresight is more the problem. His position is safe enough for now. There is no value to FF in changing leader. In fact Martin could still do a huge favour as a former minister in leading the charge for openness and answers on the activities of the last cabinet and what happened around the table. He is still the best placed to engage with the Irish people on what the hell actually happened. Unfortunately like his predecessor Brian Cowen, he wants to move on rather than dwell on the past. FF might find dwelling on the past might be the best thing they could do right now. The local elections will be a test for Martin. FF needs to be in the mid 20s to hold what they have at local level, more or less. They seem on course for that. A slight increase would be taken as a big victory. Should the party numbers fall though, questions may come quickly.

Gerry Adams – It’s been another interesting year for Gerry. From his entertaining, if strange, twitter account, to the SF poll battle people continue to ponder what his future might hold. SF is doing well in the polls. If they got 19% in a general election it would be a massive achievement and major step forward. The problem is they are struggling to understand why they are not even higher, especially given the FF figure. My answer to that, as always, is organisation. SF is still building up theirs. Many do suggest however that Gerry is not the man to lead SF in this battle. He has struggled to impose himself on southern politics and to really show a genuine grasp of the debate. SF has been much better served by Doherty, Tobin and McDonald in this regard. SF may need the injection of new leadership to bring some impetus to the project. This carries two problems; the first is that SF needs to retain its strong link with the North. Can a southern leader do that? Secondly, SF still has to decide its path. The party is struggling to define its enemies in the same way as FF did many years ago. It does not really know whether it should be attacking its traditional rivals FG, or whether it needs to hit FF hard to stop any recovery or strike out at Labour to eat into their vote. SF is fighting battles on every front and eventually will have to pick a side and deal with each one by one. A new leader will be forced to accept that. Gerry helps them avoid it for now although even he seems increasingly uneasy about it. I don’t see SF changing leader this side of a general election unless they start to fall back in the polls and I don’t think that’s likely at this point. There is a problem for the general populace in identifying with Adams however. He reminds me more and more of De Valera in the 1950’s: there are stronger leaders in the ranks below, people perhaps better prepared for the new age, but he is a hero within the party, seen as a patriot and an icon and therefore nobody is really able to bring themselves to criticise him or say his time might be past. De Valera stayed a decade too long, will it be the same for Adams?

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Social Media – Tough love for politics and business

People can sometimes overstate the difference that things like social media have made to politics and business. These tools are only in their infancy and it will take a full generation before we can say for sure the full extent of their influence. What we do know however, is that they have changed certain elements of how we do business and things will never return to the way they were.

I thought about this as a result of something Tom Doorley did on Twitter. He tweeted a picture from a coffee shop and expressed his disappointment in a product. As Tom is a food critic I saw nothing unusual in that. However there was some debate. The point was raised as to whether he should have included the owner of the chain in the tweet or sent a Direct Message to him. The point was understandably that this might be considered good manners. That’s were I have a problem though and why we need to buck up both in politics and business.

First of all on Twitter, I rarely have time to find the handle of everyone when I want to tweet. So unless I interact with that person on a daily basis I don’t include them on every tweet. You see, I have found myself in the same position as Doorley. I write on politics and have had politicians who know me, complain to me about something I wrote. It is always asked why I didn’t contact them first or why I didn’t discuss it or let them know. There is a presumption that because I follow them on Twitter or because I am friendly with them in the real world I should act differently.

I have a big problem with this. If a politician says something I think is plainly wrong then I have to say that immediately. I can’t criticise one politician with ease because they never met me or don’t follow me on twitter, but then be more cautious and circumspect when dealing with a politician I do know or I do follow. Anyone can see how that breaks all the rules and is highly unfair. Should I berate a politician I’ve never met because of their support for a particular cut while at the same time talking to another and getting their view first because that politican brought me to dinner or said something nice about me? What does that mean for my reputation?

I make the point to politicians that many people disagree with my tweets, many people disagree with my articles and an many people say an awful lot of stuff about me if I’m on something like ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’ or a radio show. I never expect that anyone is going to contact me or personally let me know that they are going to disagree with what I said. Many don’t include my handle in tweets about articles or comments and that is perfectly fine, that’s the real world. Yes it’s my business, my income and my reputation but when I go out there and say something that’s what I have to take. If they criticise me then I need to look at what I say and re-evaluate to make sure I’m happy with it or to see if I am in error.

The world has changed and politicians cannot expect to control media in the same way. They must be prepared to face the barrage of opposing voices. Journalists too must accept that comments can no longer be made in isolation. If I write a column then the modern world allows anyone to reply to it, comment on it or challenge me. That is as it should be.

Business is no different. I sometimes get asked to work with business on their PR strategies and this is often the toughest point to get home. The customer owes you nothing. They paid their money and that’s that. In the modern world every single customer is a reviewer of your product or service. They can have thousands of followers or Twitter and Facebook and their message has enormous reach. This is a good thing. Business needs, more than ever, to get things right, first time, every time. Too many businesses think that somehow their friends, their community, or their customers should be loyal or friendly. They expect that they should have a chance to respond. You don’t get that anymore. You have your chance to respond when the customer hands over their money; if you fail and don’t deliver on their expectations then they will reach for their phone and do the damage without ever talking to you.

Politicians so often complain that they were misquoted or that people don’t understand what they are trying to say. That can happen but it still remains an excuse, what has really occurred is that the politician communicated badly. That’s their fault, no one else’s. Asking people to read the full statement, or hear the full interview is a cop out. The modern world is an unforgiving place for communication and we must accept that. A good politician, like a good business, adjusts to this and reacts. Criticism is something you can build on. Don’t dismiss it, take it on board and try rectifying the matter. Whether you are looking for money or votes from people you must remember it is you who needs them more than they ever do you. They owe you nothing.

My brush with Big Tobacco and politics

The Tobacco industry has always had a very suspect relationship with politics and government.  People are very dubious about the motives of an industry with such a bad reputation.  A side effect of the advertising and sponsorship ban on cigarettes was that enormous budgets were freed up for spending on lobbying.  Manufacturers have not been shy about using this budget.
 
It did interest me this week to see that Big Tobacco has employed a range of lobbyists from what might be called the ‘FG’ family to make its case in Ireland.  This got me thinking to my own slight experience of the industry and how it simply has not changed and doesn’t seem able to get the problems it faces.  The reasons for this range from the simple to the downright wrong.  Big Tobacco like to have people who know politicians because they still believe in an old fashioned approach of putting pressure on and getting some kind of favour.
 
Let me paint a bit of background.  I worked in lobbying for over a decade, I was close to many figures in FF and that was my background.  I was then and remain now, a man without great wealth.  It’s never easy popping from one project to another never sure where next months mortgage is coming from but such is the life we lead.  I am also a non smoker and do not like the smoking habit.  I am, however, a person with a mind that likes to see all sides of an argument, that always tries to empathise with other views and understand them.  Tobacco is an industry with lots of jobs etc.  It’s also true that I know many smokers who want to smoke and like smoking and see it very much as their own personal choice and freedom.  There is some merit in that.  When faced with any project I try to detach myself from my own personal bias and opinion and try to offer the best advice I can to any client.
 
Over the years Tobacco came calling (hoping of course that I would talk to various friendly Ministers) and I write about it now because it’s a very strange experience indeed and perhaps gives some insight into the mind of Big Tobacco, the views it holds and most importantly, why I think they are on a hiding to nothing due to their own intransigence.
 
There are 3 major tobacco companies that approached me.  One met with me in their offices in Dublin.  They were talking to a lot of potential lobbyists and the interview was fairly straight forward.  It was going well enough until they asked me what the future was for Tobacco in Ireland, when I gave them the grim reality and told them they had to fight a rearguard action, they halted me.  This was of no interest to them; they wanted to know how I would go about repealing the Smoking ban (which was a few years old).  I told them this was impossible, that game was over and they had to concentrate on the challenges yet to come.  The interview got awkward and ended shortly after.  It went no further.
 
Another major company approached me after this.  They were somewhat more accepting of the position but only grudgingly so.  These guys were big on the personal freedoms and rights issues.  I met with them 3 or 4 times and was introduced to ever higher levels of their organisation.  Eventually we reached a point were they wanted me to outline a plan for them around the personal freedoms thing.  We discussed it and I pointed out that while the argument was strong, it had one inherent weakness, smoking doesn’t just affect the smoker it also affects those around them.  I made the case whereby Tobacco would have to fund and support ‘responsible smoking’, get ahead of the game and convince smokers that it was something they could do away from non smokers.  I made the point that if a smoker gets off a bus and lights up with no regard for the fact that a mother has a child in a buggy behind them, then when the smoke hits that buggy, they have made the mother an ardent anti-smoking supporter right there.  I said that public opinion was simply too ill disposed to smoking to ignore this.  The point was then made to me that I would need to be careful.  There was a danger about pioneering any such policy in Ireland because eventually I would be expected to move elsewhere and that policy would follow me and I might not want to instigate it in another country.  I was suspicious of this.  After all why would I not want to instigate it if it was the right approach and right thing to do?  Unless of course they didn’t really believe all that.  It then became clear that I had no interest in moving abroad after a few years, I had no ambition to end up in New York and I realised at that point that these guys were no longer committed to the market here.  Finally the conversation increasingly turned to my contacts, who I knew, how friendly was I with them, could I call them up, could I meet them?  I had no difficulty in terms of my contact book but I have always been sensitive about how it’s used.  The days are long gone when you ring up a minister or wine and dine them and tell them to just do you a favour.  Meeting politicians is easy.  The real work is in producing a workable plan, in showing hard evidence and in presenting a genuine argument. Sadly I began to feel that this was less what they wanted and their real hope was that I could call in some kind of favour.  This was laughable, I said straight out that if they had that approach to lobbying then they could expect to be defeated on every issue time and time again because the Minister will not go against a popular decision that is seen as a good thing to do without hard evidence. It was after that that they decided I wasn’t the person for them.
 
When a 3rd and very major company approached me about 2 years later I was very dubious.  I agreed to meet their contact in Ireland and I laid out my case plainly.  I was in no mood to have my time wasted again.  This company was very good.  The people I met were all very friendly and very helpful.  They agreed with many of my arguments.  They saw a very specific need for a change in approach to the Irish market in particular.  At this stage they saw Ireland as a country that was leading the way in cutting their industry and they needed to stop this.  Plain packaging was something that terrified them and they were busy trying to build a new image.  They accepted the wrongs of their product, or so they said, they were doing huge research to lessen the harmful effects of cigarettes and trying to change the ingredients all the time.  They were even looking at non addictive brands and other such ideas.  This all seemed reasonable.  I met with them on a couple of occasions and they made clear that they felt I was the guy for the job.  They flew me to London, picked me up by limousine, and treated me very well indeed.  The only concern I had again was that despite all the talk of working on new ideas I felt there was still an over reliance on wanting to use political contacts.  They were also highly secretive and believed meetings with government should not be discussed publicly and only be held quietly.  I argued that this would mean that the public would rightfully be suspicious, that we would only get the politicians in trouble.  They were not convinced but said it was something that could be worked on later. However, it was all from the UK and Ireland section.  Rather unexpectedly, I was asked to meet with one of their International Directors.  We sat in a coffee area very informally and chatted and I was, I must admit, shocked.  He again, asked me how I would work the ‘Irish situation’.  I discussed it at length but soon saw he was becoming uneasy.  He said to me quite plainly, ‘even if I agree with you in terms of Ireland, what you propose is not feasible, internationally’.  I asked him why not.  He said that my approach would have to be very different to what I wanted to do, because I had to be mindful of the international market.  His words stuck with me ‘We cannot, as a company, admit wrongs or try assist people in coming off cigarettes just so we are allowed retain the voluntary smoker market in Ireland…we have other markets, much larger markets and what we do in Ireland we would be expected to do there.’  I suggested to him that seeing as the company was investing so much on research surely they saw that it was endgame and they needed to have a different approach everywhere?  In just that moment I felt the mask slip away from all the company had shown me.  He shrugged and smiled and told me ‘you must remember Ireland is a small market, there are countries where we are still free to sell our product as we wish, if we ever agree and accept things in Ireland, then we will be told to apply the same thinking across the board.’  In an instant it was all clear.  The guys in Ireland and the UK knew the game was up, they had no argument it was all just a stalling mechanism.  There are better markets in the developing world where kids can still be targeted, where informing about the risks to health is not important, where the content of the cigarette is not a problem and so long as there is no law then there was no harm in doing it.  Nothing had changed, all the talk of accepting the risks and working with people was a charade.  It could go part of the way to convincing some politicians that they could still trust tobacco, but it could not go too far.  It could not be allowed impact on the other precious markets, regardless of the facts.  Where there is still money to be made, it would be made regardless of the consequences. 
 
He put down his coffee and looked at me and said ‘What I suppose I am asking is if you understand that you will still have to report and work within the international group, you would still have to carry out the tasks we set?’   I mumbled something about understanding the dynamic but said I would have to argue hard because I did not want to preside over a failing campaign and fail it would.  I got my limo back to Heathrow that night and they informed me they were not going to fill the role a few days later.  For once, I wasn’t disappointed.  I made every effort to understand their arguments but when it came down to it all three were tied together by the same basic problem.  They were only talking change because it was forced upon them and behind all the nice handshakes and reasonable arguments, lay a dirty grubby fact.  Ireland was just a place they had to fight and keep up appearances.  Their real business was elsewhere and it was as callous, uncaring and deadly as it had ever been.

My brush with Big Tobacco…

The Tobacco industry has always had a very suspect relationship with politics and government. People are very dubious about the motives of an industry with such a bad reputation. A side effect of the advertising and sponsorship ban on cigarettes was that enormous budgets were freed up for spending on lobbying. Manufacturers have not been shy about using this budget.

It did interest me this week to see that Big Tobacco has employed a range of lobbyists from what might be called the ‘FG’ family to make its case in Ireland. This got me thinking to my own slight experience of the industry and how it simply has not changed and doesn’t seem able to get the problems it faces. The reasons for this range from the simple to the downright wrong. Big Tobacco like to have people who know politicians because they still believe in an old fashioned approach of putting pressure on ang getting some kind of favour.

Let me paint a bit of background. I worked in lobbying for over a decade, I was close to many figures in FF and that was my background. I was then and remain now, a man without great wealth. It’s never easy popping from one project to another never sure where next months mortgage is coming from but such is the life we lead. I am also a non smoker and do not like the smoking habit. I am, however, a person with a mind that likes to see all sides of an argument, that always tries to empathise with other views and understand them. Tobacco is an industry with lots of jobs etc. It’s also true that I know many smokers who want to smoke and like smoking and see it very much as their own personal choice and freedom. There is some merit in that. When faced with any project I try to detach myself from my own personal bias and opinion and try to offer the best advice I can to any client.

Over the years Tobacco came calling (hoping of course that I would talk to various friendly Ministers) and I write about it now because it’s a very strange experience indeed and perhaps gives some insight into the mind of Big Tobacco, the views it holds and most importantly, why I think they are on a hiding to nothing due to their own intransigence.

There are 3 major tobacco companies that approached me. One met with me in their offices in Dublin. They were talking to a lot of potential lobbyists and the interview was fairly straight forward. It was going well enough until they asked me what the future was for Tobacco in Ireland, when I gave them the grim reality and told them they had to fight a rearguard action, they halted me. This was of no interest to them; they wanted to know how I would go about repealing the Smoking ban (which was a few years old). I told them this was impossible, that game was over and they had to concentrate on the challenges yet to come. The interview got awkward and ended shortly after. It went no further.

Another major company approached me after this. They were somewhat more accepting of the position but only grudgingly so. These guys were big on the personal freedoms and rights issues. I met with them 3 or 4 times and was introduced to ever higher levels of their organisation. Eventually we reached a point were they wanted me to outline a plan for them around the personal freedoms thing. We discussed it and I pointed out that while the argument was strong, it had one inherent weakness, smoking doesn’t just affect the smoker it also affects those around them. I made the case whereby Tobacco would have to fund and support ‘responsible smoking’, get ahead of the game and convince smokers that it was something they could do away from non smokers. I made the point that if a smoker gets off a bus and lights up with no regard for the fact that a mother has a child in a buggy behind them, then when the smoke hits that buggy, they have made the mother an ardent anti-smoking supporter right there. I said that public opinion was simply too ill disposed to smoking to ignore this. The point was then made to me that I would need to be careful. There was a danger about pioneering any such policy in Ireland because eventually I would be expected to move elsewhere and that policy would follow me and I might not want to instigate it in another country. I was suspicious of this. After all why would I not want to instigate it if it was the right approach and right thing to do? Unless of course they didn’t really believe all that. It then became clear that I had no interest in moving abroad after a few years, I had no ambition to end up in New York and I realised at that point that these guys were no longer committed to the market here. Finally the conversation increasingly turned to my contacts, who I knew, how friendly was I with them, could I call them up, could I meet them? I had no difficulty in terms of my contact book but I have always been sensitive about how it’s used. The days are long gone when you ring up a minister or wine and dine them and tell them to just do you a favour. Meeting politicians is easy. The real work is in producing a workable plan, in showing hard evidence and in presenting a genuine argument. Sadly I began to feel that this was less what they wanted and their real hope was that I could call in some kind of favour. This was laughable, I said straight out that if they had that approach to lobbying then they could expect to be defeated on every issue time and time again because the Minister will not go against a popular decision that is seen as a good thing to do without hard evidence. It was after that that they decided I wasn’t the person for them.

When a 3rd and very major company approached me about 2 years later I was very dubious. I agreed to meet their contact in Ireland and I laid out my case plainly. I was in no mood to have my time wasted again. This company was very good. The people I met were all very friendly and very helpful. They agreed with many of my arguments. They saw a very specific need for a change in approach to the Irish market in particular. At this stage they saw Ireland as a country that was leading the way in cutting their industry and they needed to stop this. Plain packaging was something that terrified them and they were busy trying to build a new image. They accepted the wrongs of their product, or so they said, they were doing huge research to lessen the harmful effects of cigarettes and trying to change the ingredients all the time. They were even looking at non addictive brands and other such ideas. This all seemed reasonable. I met with them on a couple of occasions and they made clear that they felt I was the guy for the job. They flew me to London, picked me up by limousine, and treated me very well indeed. The only concern I had again was that despite all the talk of working on new ideas I felt there was still an over reliance on wanting to use political contacts. They were also highly secretive and believed meetings with government should not be discussed publicly and only be held quietly. I argued that this would mean that the public would rightfully be suspicious, that we would only get the politicians in trouble. They were not convinced but said it was something that could be worked on later. However, it was all from the UK and Ireland section. Rather unexpectedly, I was asked to meet with one of their International Directors. We sat in a coffee area very informally and chatted and I was, I must admit, shocked. He again, asked me how I would work the ‘Irish situation’. I discussed it at length but soon saw he was becoming uneasy. He said to me quite plainly, ‘even if I agree with you in terms of Ireland, what you propose is not feasible, internationally’. I asked him why not. He said that my approach would have to be very different to what I wanted to do, because I had to be mindful of the international market. His words stuck with me ‘We cannot, as a company, admit wrongs or try assist people in coming off cigarettes just so we are allowed retain the voluntary smoker market in Ireland…we have other markets, much larger markets and what we do in Ireland we would be expected to do there.’ I suggested to him that seeing as the company was investing so much on research surely they saw that it was endgame and they needed to have a different approach everywhere? In just that moment I felt the mask slip away from all the company had shown me. He shrugged and smiled and told me ‘you must remember Ireland is a small market, there are countries where we are still free to sell our product as we wish, if we ever agree and accept things in Ireland, then we will be told to apply the same thinking across the board.’ In an instant it was all clear. The guys in Ireland and the UK knew the game was up, they had no argument it was all just a stalling mechanism. There are better markets in the developing world where kids can still be targeted, where informing about the risks to health is not important, where the content of the cigarette is not a problem and so long as there is no law then there was no harm in doing it. Nothing had changed, all the talk of accepting the risks and working with people was a charade. It could go part of the way to convincing some politicians that they could still trust tobacco, but it could not go too far. It could not be allowed impact on the other precious markets, regardless of the facts. Where there is still money to be made, it would be made regardless of the consequences.

H put down his coffee and looked at me and said ‘What I suppose I am asking is if you understand that you will still have to report and work within the international group, you would still have to carry out the tasks we set?’ I mumbled something about understanding the dynamic but said I would have to argue hard because I did not want to preside over a failing campaign and fail it would. I got my limo back to Heathrow that night and they informed me they were not going to fill the role a few days later. For once, I wasn’t disappointed. I made every effort to understand their arguments but when it came down to it all three were tied together by the same basic problem. They were only talking change because it was forced upon them and behind all the nice handshakes and reasonable arguments, lay a dirty grubby fact. Ireland was just a place they had to fight and keep up appearances. Their real business was elsewhere and it was as callous, uncaring and deadly as it had ever been.

Seanad Referendum – There are no winners here

The Seanad debate is quite annoying. We are spending a huge amount of time and effort debating something that will not make one scintilla of difference to people’s lives no matter what the outcome of the referendum is. That said, the government has insisted that it’s necessary to have this debate here and now and so it is forced upon us.

I have made clear in the past that I would vote for abolition if the government could guarantee the €20 million savings would be ring fenced and spent on something worthwhile. That call of course fell on deaf ears because the savings figure is spurious. That brings me to the next problem with the debate.

I certainly don’t want to be out there defending a Seanad I never really liked but sometimes that’s where you end up. The reason the 20 million figure cannot and will not be guaranteed as a saving is because the government has already stated that it intends to follow on with more changes.

We are all well aware by now of the Labour revolt at Enda’s plan for a panel of appointed experts to act like a mini Seanad and review legislation. This revolt happened because labour was well aware that it would only end up being more cronyism. Whatever panels and new committees and reforms of Dail procedure that the government propose will cost money. But lets leave that aside and ask yourself a simple question, ‘Do you know what happens after the Seanad is gone?’

The answer is of course, No, we don’t know for sure because the government hasn’t told us that yet. You see, abolition of the Seanad might not be an altogether bad idea if you have a plan. If the government were truly serious, then the path was obvious. You instigate reform across the system, you propose the uni-cameral, or single chamber Oireachtas, as part of a totally new way of doing business. You lay out how the new single Chamber will work, what the changes to committees will be, what powers government will have, where oversight will occur, who will form the new committees and what roles will be filled along with outlining the total costs. Then you ask the people to endorse this new system and abolish the Seanad and let you get on with it.

Now if I was satisfied that there would be substantial savings and that the new system was actually going to work better than what we have, I would have no difficulty backing the referendum it might even be quite exciting.

That is not what has happened though. The government is asking to abolish the Seanad and then the mumble about further reforms once this is done. It is a typically Irish way of doing business. We know we might struggle to get agreement on a new system, we don’t really have it all figured out, but sure what the hell; we will tinker with some bits and see what happens after. Its like deciding you are going to start messing with the engine of the car because you know something is wrong, you know how to loosen some of the bolts so you get started, but you cant say for sure what’s going to happen mid way through the dismantling, but hopefully you will figure it out along the way.

We are being asked to vote in the dark. Abolition is not a matter of just getting rid of the Seanad and continuing on. The government has made clear that it intends to do further work to take over the work and oversight that it has found the Seanad ineffective on. It just doesn’t know what that will be yet.

Some on the Yes side point to the fact that FF/FG/Labour and others have failed to reform the Seanad so they can’t be trusted to reform it now and that therefore it should be abolished. This completely ignores the fact that by doing so you are blindly trusting the same people to reform other areas they have equally failed to do in the past and trusting that they won’t set up something even worse than the Seanad or more ineffective.

The debate has become impossible. It is impossible because we simply don’t know what we are debating. One side wants reform but they know this vote doesn’t offer that. The other want abolition but have no idea beyond whispers and rumours of what happens once the Seanad is gone or what the government will do as regards its own or Dail powers.

This is a ridiculous situation. It is yet another example of half baked and ill thought out policies. The government should be presenting abolition as a part of its reforms, instead its proposing it on its own with no indication of what is to come. Abolition could make sense but not in this context. This approach is to ask the people to put blind faith in the government to set up new committees and powers without any idea of what they are or how they will work.

For all we know what replaces the Seanad, could be more costly, even less effective and filled with committees and appointments of even greater elitism. The Single Chamber system can work well but it requires significant Dail reform. We should not be voting on the Seanad until we know what that Dail reform will look like and how it will work. The Government plan may yet be a good one, but so far it doesn’t look like they have one or know what to do. In that event voting Yes becomes very difficult, for it is a leap in the dark. The government should scrap the referendum and come back to it when they are ready and have a full proposal to make that can be properly assessed. Otherwise we are voting on something that neither side is sure of the outcome on. Usually when that happens the old adage of ‘If you don’t know, Vote No’ comes out to win, but that may not be the case this time. I’m starting to feel that its all a bit like the tagline from the Alien Vs Predator Film….Whoever wins, we lose.

A hatred of specifics is choking our politics

As a nation we just don’t seem to like being too specific. When we are angry with people we tend to blame them for a range of things or in the most general sense. We say they ‘destroyed everything’. When we are sorry for something we like to keep it as broad as possible, we are ‘sorry if we did any stuff that wasn’t good’. When we set targets we set them to be open to interpretation and moveable timeframes. When we make promises we like to leave a little wriggle room so we can say we ‘never actually said that’. When we announce budgets we announce spending and cuts but leave out the details of how it will be done in the hope people wont notice things.

Being specific is a pretty important thing in life however. Fianna Fail is a case in point. For a start we need to know exactly what we are angry with them about. What exactly were the failings and what is just political hyperbole. To be fair many Irish people do have a sense of this at least. FF still hasn’t really grasped the nettle for its part. Several leading figures have used the word ‘sorry’ as if it’s a panacea. They are then surprised that people won’t let them move on. It doesn’t work like that.

I am a married man, and well used to having the tiffs and arguments that go with the territory. I think we all know if we argue with our partner it takes a bit more than walking in in a huff, saying ‘ok I’m sorry but I thought I was right’ to fix the situation. It fact such a line will probably make things worse. People need to see two things, contrition and learning. Neither is thus far in evidence.

Brian Cowen and indeed other FF figures need to let people see what being sorry means to them. Walking away with a good pension and saying it was all just unfortunate and sorry about that is not good enough. Specifics are necessary. The FF communications are as deplorable today as they were at the height of the crisis. They still run from a past that is their only route to salvation. Facing that demon, admitting the specifics of what you regret. Telling people, what were the moments you wish you had over? Who are the people you feel angry with? Let down by? When you look back, what decisions did you take, that if you had it over, you would do something different? Who said what exactly? If you cannot do this then you cannot say you have learned and therefore still cannot be trusted.

Yesterday I was on the Marian Finucane Show and Mary Hanafin was also on the panel. I have always found Hanafin fairly direct and one of the politicians more open to assessing some failings. During the course of the discussion, I was suggesting that the politicians had a separate case to answer and give details on. Civil servants and banks etc should be asked about the advice they gave. Politicians must answer why they listened so strongly to that advice, why did they not ask questions as was the most basic part of their job? Hanafin, understandably, defended the position saying questions were asked. I pressed her for evidence of this; I asked if she or anyone could show us that this happened. There is no point in saying it if you can’t back it up with evidence to people. Finally, she suggested that state papers in 30 years might show up some of this. I have to say that’s just not good enough for a people who deserve answers now and FF certainly should not be thinking of waiting 30 years to deal with it.

SF sit nearby FF in the Dail and while they point to all the different policies, the specifics on implementation is not something they like discussing. The problems are waved away by saying surely it could all be no worse. The high taxes proposed of up to 7% increases will hit more than people with vast wealth. They will have knock on effects too but there are no specifics on how we deal with this.

They are not alone however. The government is equally terrified of being specific. As we approach a budget that will bring great hardship to many it will be done in broad parameters and language that allows wriggle room. We can say we won’t increase income taxes, but then we will apply a host of charges and new taxes that will hit those on lower incomes hardest. We will protect the basic welfare rates, but then reduce the services, the levels at which they are applicable or the time they apply for. This failure to be specific and to claim a positive out of a negative is simply making people distrust politics.

The Seanad referendum is not immune either. The No side want reform but are unsure how they will force that reform after the referendum. They have failed to get present day senators and TDs to commit to specific actions in order to see that reform happen. Don’t be fooled though, the yes side is as bad if not worse. They propose abolition and then say that Dail reform follows this with new powers to committees and other changes. They have not told us what these changes will be, for all we know we could end up with several committees and bodies appointed that are even less democratic. If a government was serious about reform it would be specific. It would have laid out the entire legislation for reform and the details of how the new system will work and then (and only then) it would ask us to abolish the Seanad as the first step. Instead, it’s the same old politics, ‘don’t be too specific, we can do what we like after.’

It is unlikely things will ever change to be honest. Being specific is seen as something that creates problems and ties you up. That is in some respects even understandable and a reasonable position. The problem is there are times when being specific can allow people to trust you again. When it allows people see what it is your doing and not feel that they are being lied to. It can be the only road out of a mess and the only way to put things back on a firm footing. If we have reached a stage where we always going to avoid being specific then we are, perhaps, on the road to nowhere.

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